Will More in Philanthropy Adopt the MacKenzie or Melinda Approach to Giving?
During the past few years, the philanthropic world has come to expect headlines about MacKenzie Scott and Melinda French Gates. But the barrage of news about these two women obscures a larger story: how their uniquely bold and personal approaches to philanthropy are remaking the field.
While both have publicly committed through the Giving Pledge to donate most of their wealth during their lifetimes, their styles of giving mark opposite ends of a new kind of philanthropic continuum. This continuum — what we call the MacKenzie-Melinda Scale — has the potential to realign the trillion-dollar-a-year field of philanthropy.
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During the past few years, the philanthropic world has come to expect headlines about MacKenzie Scott and Melinda French Gates. But the barrage of news about these two women obscures a larger story: how their bold and personal approaches are remaking philanthropy.
While both have publicly committed through the Giving Pledge to donate most of their wealth during their lifetimes, their styles of giving mark out opposite ends of a new kind of philanthropic continuum. This continuum — what we call the MacKenzie-Melinda Scale — has the potential to realign the philanthropy world and its $1 trillion in assets.
On one end of this new scale, MacKenzie Scott avoids the spotlight to make no-strings-attached donations, and she does so without the assistance of a formal foundation or philanthropic infrastructure. She’s even stopped announcing how much she’s giving away in favor of focusing attention on the organizations she supports.
On her blog, she pushes back against society’s restrictive definitions of philanthropy and philanthropists, saying what matters is “intention and effort” — not the number of zeroes.
On the other end, Melinda French Gates stands up as a public voice and a vocal advocate for gender equality. She organizes data-driven giving through a well-developed and well-staffed limited-liability corporation called Pivotal Ventures that builds multiyear commitments and partnerships with grantees. Even within this structure, however, “it’s equally important to place trust in the people and organizations we partner with and let them define success on their own terms,” she writes in her recently updated Giving Pledge letter. “Philanthropists are generally more helpful to the world when we’re standing behind a movement rather than trying to lead our own.”
In each case, it’s the approach to giving taken by these two women — private and instinctive for Scott and public and strategic for French Gates — that matters most. The size of the gift itself is secondary.
Both of us have directly benefited from significant philanthropic gifts associated with these two women. So, what we write here comes from personal experience. Kristin worked for two organizations that received grants from Scott and Pivotal Ventures. Jamie oversees a project that received funding from Pivotal Ventures. We continue to be impressed by Scott’s total trust in grantees and French Gates’s collaborative approach with women and people of color.
The MacKenzie Scott End of the Scale
In 2020 and 2021, Scott gave away more than $8.5 billion. Then she gave more — billions, perhaps — but declined to make the amount public. She did all this without any apparent organizational infrastructure or stated strategy. Little is public about how Scott selects her charitable investments except that she’s advised by Bridgespan, a consulting firm that works exclusively with nonprofits, grant makers, and philanthropists.
Scott describes her approach to giving as an effort informed by “me, Dan [her husband], a constellation of researchers and administrators and advisors … attempting to give away a fortune that was enabled by systems in need of change.”
In the absence of a stated strategy, Scott’s approach and intentions seem mysterious. Some wonder what she aims to accomplish or how she knows her investments will advance those goals. From another perspective, however, the way she chooses to give — without prior contact and in massive amounts — implicitly and explicitly disrupts the status quo.
And that may be both her underlying goal and the explanation for her style of giving.
By providing unrestricted support to hundreds of progressive, community-serving organizations and educational institutions, often led by Black, Indigenous, and people of color, Scott enables visions and visionaries around the globe that are often overlooked by traditional philanthropy. Recipients of her giving could seek donations for years without ever attracting the same kind of transformative investment. Her style of support shows trust in the leaders of these organizations, empowering them to use the funding as they need.
This upends the philanthropic landscape and shifts how grant makers should think about giving to best support nonprofits. Scott demonstrates a new style of philanthropy — one that rejects even the label of philanthropy.
French Gates, in her own way, does something similar.
The Melinda French Gates End of the Scale
As co-chair of the world’s largest foundation and co-founder of the Giving Pledge, French Gates comes schooled in strategic philanthropy, with its theories of change and theories of action, with metrics and methods of measurement. Yet she has established a new type of infrastructure to support her independent giving efforts.
Her Pivotal Ventures is an investment and incubation company with a mission “to advance social progress in the United States, enabling better lives for more people,” according to the group’s website.
While French Gates’s philanthropy has similar aims to that of MacKenzie Scott’s, she works to achieve them differently — through an established process and with data-driven measures. Pivotal Ventures’s investments, its website declares, are “guided by data, experts and those with lived experience in our focus areas.”
French Gates’s method often involves an inclusive, community-centered design council composed of women of color whose expertise and lived experience strengthen Pivotal Ventures’s transparent vetting and application process. The organization’s process also includes conversations between its staff and nonprofit leaders and explicitly includes the cultivation of connections and relationships. This adds a relational commitment — some intention and effort — to the financial contribution. Pivotal Ventures is available to its grantees and partners. And by extension, those partners become available to one another.
In contrast, Scott often alerts grantees of gifts by means of a surprise email or phone call, and those come through intermediaries that recipients can’t publicly name. Both women give funds that are unrestricted, but in MacKenzie Scott’s case, they also come practically unattached.
These different giving styles fall at either end of the MacKenzie-Melinda Scale.
The MacKenzie-Melinda Scale
The whole continuum of the MacKenzie-Melinda Scale differs from that of traditional philanthropy in that, following due diligence, gifts are: 1) made based on trust, 2) unrestricted, and 3) often directed to organizations led by or benefiting those whose lived experience reflect the problems the grant is addressing.
This approach may reflect the difference that gender can make in the practice of giving. Far too often and for far too long, American women’s experiences and voices have been ignored — or worse. In terms of the workplace, the economy, their roles in society, and even their own bodies, women’s power has been diluted or overruled by men. Wealth, too, has historically been concentrated among men. But that is changing. The greatest wealth transfer in history is underway, and research shows that women will control 70 percent of the nation’s wealth by 2030.
MacKenzie Scott and Melinda French Gates’s styles converge in two areas: Both embrace participatory grant making, which gives decision-making power to those who benefit from philanthropic funding. And both concentrate their investments on issues and organizations focused on and led by women and people of color.
Both demonstrate in real time and with good faith that there are different, effective ways to redistribute capital when women lead the way. They provoke a worthy conversation about the differences unrestricted resources make in the operations and impact of the charitable world. Both bring public attention to urgent issues and needs. And both intentionally bring new voices and faces to tables of power, possibility, and influence.
Where a foundation places itself on the MacKenzie-Melinda Scale is interesting to consider, but it’s less important than stepping up to the scale in the first place and asking the questions it demands of philanthropy: How does an organization give, and how do its values align with that giving? Whom do grant makers prioritize — explicitly or implicitly? How do they reach the people who most understand the problems and solutions that philanthropists seek to invest in?
During a time when unimaginable wealth is concentrated in the hands of the very few, including in the accounts of charitable foundations, these are questions MacKenzie Scott and Melinda French Gates courageously answer in their own ways — and to the world’s benefit.